Should we be nice to children?

In Britain, children are worshiped and considered the most important members of the family. The parents exist to provide for and guide the children, their own needs being second place to fulfilling their children’s needs (or wants).

In Madagascar, children justify much less respect and sentimentality.

Here are some examples of how children are not on a pedestal:

  • Any adult (not just family) can instruct any child to do, fetch anything and the child will do it straight away
  • Children must never walk in front of adults who are sat talking
  • Children don’t join in the adult conversations
  • Children are expected to do domestic chores (and not just the nice ones)
  • Parents don’t spend much more time on their children than is necessary – playing is something done by children amongst themselves.
  • Parents don’t intervene much in children’s disputes (unless it disturbs the adults)
  • Children are the last people to be greeted when visitors arrive
  • Smacking children is normal
  • Children are not encouraged to express their opinions or ask questions
  • Children are not comforted if they hurt themselves – it is either pointed out why it was their own fault or someone distracts them by doing something humorous
  • Physical affection is kept a minimum
  • Children are rarely praised
  • The normal mode of parental conversation is barking instructions, correcting negative behaviour (criticising or telling off) or mocking (Malagasys from other towns tell me this ‘mickey taking’ is particularly a Diego trait)

If you are a sensitive Anglo-Saxon reader (British or American), you are probably sobbing quietly into your hanky by now. I frequently come up with plans to protect my child from unfeeling Malagasys such as raising him alone in my living room, setting up an orphanage where children can be raised in my way and distributing copies of the poem ‘If a Child lives with’ in French and Malagasy (I confess I’ve already translated this to put up in my own house).

I should note that, despite my initial concerns, the two people who have looked after my son, his Dady (Granny) and Zakia, have both been lovely with him.

How is my parenting perceived?

Remember that all Malagasy parents were raised as Malagasy children and so see this as the right way to raise children to be functioning adults. And they’re right because that’s the way society works here. It would be unacceptable for children to impinge on adult lives and Malagasy adults also talk to each other in ways more critical, more directive and more mocking than we consider appropriate.

So far, people aren’t too critical (to my face) about my parenting but I know there will many opinions about over indulgence, over sentimentality and lack of boundaries.

Is it about money?

Boys at RamenaIn England, families spend a fortune on their children – not just toys but food, education, activities, holidays, electronic gadgets, baby equipment – I could go on and on.

The difference in parenting isn’t directly about money – people also don’t see why children need much more than food, basic clothes and a place to sleep. Children make their own entertainment and toys and certainly don’t need after school activities to keep them fit – all the 10 year old boys are ripped with six packs and biceps.

Is it about time?

In England, adults invest inordinate amount of time into their children. Manic middle class mummies attempt to create a constant environment of stimulation with visits to petting zoos, coffee mornings with other mums and children, playing classical music, reading, putting on child friendly videos etc. etc.

People have argued with me that Malagasys are too busy looking for something to eat for their children to be ‘playing’ with them. However, anybody who has visited Coastal Madagascar will know that there’s a fair amount of ‘down-time’. Britain has the longest working hours of any country in Europe – maybe that’s why we make so much effort in the hours that we are with the children.

Son and ducksIn Madagascar, real life is going on all around and children get a lot of stimulation just from watching real life. There’s no need to visit petting zoos when animals are all around. And who needs videos when the adults are carrying on their lives around them. And there are always plenty of kids around providing the best form of entertainment.

However, looking at Madagascar with my English eyes, I do feel that children here lack something by not doing some structured activities lead by adults. My natural reaction is to be depressed by the lack of effort put into encouraging children to have inquiring minds. I heard a resident Vazaha say the other day that ‘The problem with Madagascar is the lack of a stimulating environment for infants.’ It’s an interesting thought although may say more about different cultural approaches between Vazahas and Malagasys than whether they lack a stimulating environment.

Less children, more effort?

I saw Bill and Melinda Gates talk about setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’s biggest medical funding charity, trying to cure the world of big nasties, such as malaria and HIV. They commented that the West has been allowed to develop a different parenting model because of our increased confidence that our children will grow up to achieve adulthood. We can confidently invest all of our effort into our precious 2 children relatively safe in the knowledge that they will thrive. In poorer countries, the child mortality rate is still very high and people have more children.

I asked the woman I bought fish off this week how many children she has and she said 8. With 8 children and little money, you have little choice but to let them raise themselves whilst you search for money to feed and clothe them. She could have saved money by investing in condoms but that’s a whole other debate.

Or is it just more French?

After I’d written this piece, I found the following article in the Telegraph by Janine di Giovanni called, ‘Is Maman mean or magnifique?

It describes the difference between Anglo-Saxon and French parenting styles and seems to sum up the situation here perfectly. I’ve yet to work out how to evaluate the effects of French colonialism (only 60 years) on Malagasy cultures. But, by coincidence or learning, the Malagasys are definitely quite French in their approach to children.

Who’s got it right?

Little Robin HoodsAnd Malagasy children do grow up (usually) and they grow up very respectful of authority and rules. And they learn to fulfil the main tasks of life. Could they achieve more if they were given more attention? Probably? Could they benefit from some praise and tenderness from time to time? Well, I’m British so I’m going to shout ‘Yes, show me the love – let’s all hug’.

But could British kids benefit from having a bit less of everything they want, a bit more time freely running outside with other children and a bit more hard graft to do? I think they probably could.

What about me?

I am British and middle class and the child of Anglo-Saxon educationalists. I fulfil my demographic clichés nicely. I devote my time to making my son feel loved and stimulated, monitor his progress against developmental milestones and ensure he is my priority in life (and everybody else’s if I get the chance).

However, I hope that he will benefit from a more physical life here (will he be the one fetching coconuts?), he will have more chores to do (keeps them occupied and gives them a sense of responsibility) and will spend time running around outside with other kids (I’m more nervous about this one when I see what some of the kids get up to but you can’t have it all ways!).

I believe in discipline and boundaries in theory though I’ve yet to demonstrate I can do it in practice. But I had an idea that punishment comes from showing disapproval contrasting with the usual positive atmosphere of praise and love – disapproval isn’t a punishment if it’s the default mode of interaction. I’ve also been watching TV programmes like Supernanny (and anyone else peddling the same ideas) since becoming a Mum so I’m all up for (again in theory) giving the child choices and explaining consequences and following up on them.

But, I know I sound like I’ve swallowed an ‘Earth mother’s guide to raising your child’ and even I have a horrible fear that’s a recipe for a wilful little prince to develop.

Can I learn to be a little more Malagasy and a little more French so my child doesn’t get horribly confused or take his mother for a sucker against all the other bossy adults around him (surely any approach needs to be consistent and in context)?

We’ll wait and see. For now I will go and wrap my son in my arms protect him from any stray harsh words or mean looks that might be blowing around on the hot Malagasy breeze.


A tale of two grannies

Two grannies in DiegoToday’s tale is a travelogue of an unusual trip from Diego to Sainte Marie, with my baby son Fred, my Mum (white Granny), Jean’s Mum (black Granny)

So, 3 women set out on the same journey with a collection of objectives.

  • To visit your birthplace and family
  • To meet new family
  • To indulge in relaxation
  • To see another part of Madagascar
  • To scout Sainte Marie out as potential future home (this is a vague notion of mine and a more serious consideration for Jean’s Mum)

What a privilege to be travelling with my son and his two Grandmothers – especially on such an exotic trip. Fred doesn’t realise how lucky he is now but I’m happy that he is loved already so much by the people close to me.

We piled into our car and another taxi to get to Antsiranana airport – which has been improved during my stay in England. There’s two check in desks, an information desk (a rare thing indeed in Madagascar) and sliding doors.

Air Madagascar customer service

Nil points – when in doubt, lie

I had one experience with Malagasy customer service that would have once tried my patience much more than it does now.

Air travellers with small children now normally have the right to keep a pushchair / buggy with them right up to the plane door. It is stowed and then returned to them when they arrive at the next airport. I have done this before with Air Madagascar.

I had pre-packed my buggy this time to save time. The check in desk insisted on checking it in and putting it straight in the hold. They claimed it would magically appear at Tana if I spoke to ‘someone’. My experience on any international travel indicates this is not likely – and in Madagascar even less so.

As a response to my insistence, a man said he’d phone Tana and disappeared. I told the lady I’d return in 10 minutes to find out who they’d spoken to and what I needed to do at Tana. When, to her dismay, I did return, she told me I should go and speak to her boss, the man who had disappeared ‘to phone Tana’. He then told me there was no need to phone Tana and then went on to explain that people getting their pushchairs depends on the amount of flight traffic.

So, the bald fact is he’d lied about phoning Tana and was now making up Air Madagascar policy. I don’t know for a fact that he was wrong but it was already clear he was not an expert on the Air Madagascar pushchair policy.

Anyway, instead of the seething rage this might once have produced, I only suffered mild, amused disapproval. I realise that he may be breaking my code of customer service but I was also making many Malagasy cultural faux pas (I still make them all the time but I’m more aware of when I’m making some of them).

Firstly I was expecting to receive full customer satisfaction. Secondly, I kept driving at a point when it had become obvious somebody didn’t know what to do – to Malagasys, my insistence at this point is justification enough for the man lying, it was the acceptable thing to do to save everybody’s face. Thirdly, Malagasys don’t have pushchairs so my insistence that it was a necessity for a 5 hour stopover at Tana, is incomprehensible.

Thankfully, I avoided the major faux pas of losing my rag and criticising, as this is not the Malagasy way. So, I left the situation ensuring that the man’s professional status had been respected and by making a joke so we could all laugh together and know there are no hard feelings.

Mille points – gold star to him

The male air steward on the plane needs special commendation for his enthusiasm for his job and determination to love each and every customer. I have never seen an air steward who doesn’t at least look a little jaded – not this chap – job satisfaction all the way. He assured me my buggy would be no problem (he didn’t actually appear to help me at Tana but at least this gave me confidence to keep trying).

A chill at Antananarivo airport

The staff at Tana airport were very helpful although I did have to continue to be the insistent traveller. I got the buggy. Sat in the shade outside the airport, there was a surpisingly chilly wind which saw black granny reaching for her huge cardigan and white granny smiling, though still having to put a scarf round her shoulders.

Madagascar developing in small and big ways

I hate to trivialise the march for development, but I couldn’t help noticing that the toilets were clean and had toilet paper and soap. Small things like this give outsiders an impression of development, which is a plus in itself. I haven’t yet worked out any more complex analysis of Malagasy economics but little things add up.

As if to remind us just how far development can take you, the TV in the departure lounge was showing a non-stop infomercial for some flab wobbling, muscle toner. I suspect the majority of the Malagasy population is a long way from being customers.

Sainte Marie – plane lands, moods lift

I’d talked all week about Ile Sainte Marie as a tropical island paradise but what we’d find in reality was far from certain. Anyone who’s heard of Madagascar usually oos and ahs about the exotic, lush, mysteriousness of it. The reality of much of what I have seen is very different, and not that amazing.

So, as we came into land with our wheels skimming turquoise water and our wing tip floating between a white sandy beach and lush tropical vegetation, things were looking promising.

By the time we walked out of the terminal with our bags my Mum and I were already declaring that Sainte Marie is lovely. ‘Wait until you see the roads’, Jean’s Mum said.

What’s worse – the car or the road?

Any emotional buoyancy soon withered when we saw our transport, a battered minibus without seat belts that brought back horrible memories of previous dances with deaths in a taxi brousse with my Mum.

It was the first time I was taking Fred in a car without a car seat – I told the driver I was very nervous so to go slow – although this was also for my Mum’s benefit, who is a nervous passenger, to say the least.

Then it wouldn’t start and required a push start. Mum’s mood was blackening – I would be more zen if she wasn’t there but I know how car transport can worry her.

Poor Jean’s Mum had been terrified of the flight. We were more scared of the car journey (more faith in science and statistics?)..

Mum had had to close her eyes during the ‘bridge’ crossing of the bays south of Ambodifotatra. I had kept my eyes open, mainly to plan how I would evacuate myself with my son, before going back to rescue my Mum and Jean’s Mum, if we ended up under water.

All’s well that ends well

As nearly always, we arrived safely at our destination. Things were definitely looking up. Our hotel is a gorgeous little place nestled in a secluded bay, and it is a gorgeous tropical little bay.

Looks like we’ve found our tropical island paradise after all.

Anchors away

US Warship in bayA big American warship is floating proudly in the bay. It is resting after carrying its athletic cargo of trainee marines across the seas. Meanwhile the sailors explore Diego, finding its arms (and legs) wide open.

The ship is an impressive sight, almost making the bay look smaller than it is. As I took my late afternoon stroll, I wasn’t the only white face taking photos.

Excited town

The population of Diego seems to increase when the American ship is in port as the town blossoms with possibility. People from the outlying districts don their best attire to play their part in the atmosphere.

For the good time girls that Antsiranana is famous for, this is better than Christmas. Other men come in to town with money throughout the year but this is something else. This is glamour, as if life from the films has come to town. Apparently, even the highest quality girls, with no desperate need for money, will put on their best outfits and come out.

I assumed this was because the sailors were big time customers of the Diego ladies’ charms. But a local man assured me that the girls are looking for action, even without payment – a rare occurrence indeed, and one I find hard to believe quite frankly. But apparently, they want the kudos of saying they’ve been with an American sailor. Odd considering it can’t be hard to get laid when a warship full of horny men dock in town.

Why, I pondered, were the sailors exciting enough to warrant such special attention.

Everyone loves a sailor

Just as I was getting patronising about local girls’ excitement at the sailors, I was reminded that its not limited to Malagasy girls.

An odd twist of fate meant I sat down to watch Episode 1 of Sex in the City (series 5), only to discover it is called ‘Anchors Away’ and is about an American warship docking in New York. The four Sex in the City ladies pass the episode against a background of the excitement caused by the City being full of sailors.

I’m tickled by the idea of the same young men having adventures with Carrie and Samantha in New York and the young nubile ladies of Diego.

It turns out you really can see the world, and its ladies, if you’re an open minded marine.

Feeling amused and less snooty about the whole thing, I popped out in the car this afternoon to get some shopping. Suddenly I saw two strapping, chiselled and awfully handsome US marines walking my way.

And yes, I felt a flutter and my pulse quicken as I pointedly stared straight forward and concentrated on my driving.

I don’t know what the magic is but climbed down off my high horse and enjoyed an envious affinity with the local girls in their tiny, sparkly dresses heading out to find their own little adventure with their US marines.

Having a baby in Madagascar

My partner’s step-sister had her 2nd baby today at Antsiranana hospital It has been interesting to see the similarities and differences between her Madagascar experience and my British one.

Complicated birth

We were all a little nervous leading up to this as she lost a healthy baby last year due to strangulation by the cord during the birth. She’d gone well past full term again this time and her belly was still very high and didn’t show any sign of the baby dropping into position.

It sounds like she had to take control of the situation herself. She waited until the day that ‘the good doctor’ was at the hospital and went with her bag and money (for treatment and medications) all packed. She took herself to the testing centre, in town not connected to the hospital, for another ultrasound which told her she still had a week to go.

Dissatisfied with this information she went back to the hospital for another ultrasound (remember she has to pay for all of these and they’re not cheap) and was told that there was only a little bit of amniotic fluid left in the womb and that her baby had probably been suffering for some time (not sure this was helpful information).

They wanted to induce her but she insisted on a caesarean, mindful of her experience last year when she was also induced. The surgeon agreed. She was offered epidural or general anaesthetic and opted for general – didn’t want to hear the clinking.

I went to visit her in the evening.

The maternity ward

Diego hospitalTo get into the maternity ward in England you had to get past the security coded doors, the disinfectant hand pumps and the reception desk staffed by midwives (in fact a host of different staff in different uniforms that I never worked out who they were).

In the Maternity ward at Diego General Hospital, you just walk in to a room with open windows to some regulation hospital beds and people sat around everywhere.

In Madagascar you have to supply your own food, linen and anything else that the mother or baby needs (this is the same for any hospital stay – or prison stay for that matter). So, by default nothing is sterile.

She’d been advised not to breastfeed until her milk came in, which is contrary to the emphasis that the UK midwives put on the importance of the baby breastfeeding the minute it pops out and getting that colustrum over the first 3 days. So, a friend of the mother was feeding the baby sugar water with an unsterilised spoon which she put in her mouth before giving to the baby.

As with many things in Madagascar my immediate reaction is horror and then you realise that the world doesn’t fall apart when things aren’t done the vazaha way. This isn’t to downplay the infant mortality rate here or what I suspect is a poorer rate of healthy outcomes from hospital stays but, in general, everybody stays alive. And, they’re not worried about our super hospital infections here – I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not here or because it’s more pressing to worry about cholera and amoebic dysentery.

I experienced more horror the next day when half eaten food on the bedside table was teeming with ants.

The Mum doesn’t have a nice electronic bed to raise her up so she’s lying prone unable to do much with her baby. He opens his eyes for the first time whilst I’m there so I raise him up for her to look at. She’s very slurry so I presume she’s still on some kick arse pain killers.

But despite the differences I was strongly reminded of being that new Mum with my own new little baby. As I heard the newborn cries and the mother turn her head away into the pillow a bit emotional, I felt tears well up in my eyes. And she looked so happy as the baby stopped crying just because he was laid next to her. And I felt myself falling in love with the little baby, just as I saw other experienced mothers do when I was out in public with a very small Fred. We really are programmed to love little babies.

You need family

There are nurses but the primary care of the mother and baby are done by friends and family. A woman has stayed with the new Mum all the time. Although I think that it would be great to have more midwife and nurse care, the system doesn’t work well in England either, due to the same shortage. I would have loved to have had a friend or family member with me who could help me out with all the little things. Pressing a button and waiting 40 minutes for a frazzled midwife to turn up once the need has passed didn’t provide me much support.

Begging and other ways to get money

Madagascar is one of the poorest counties in the world, positioned 164 out of 177 countries for GDP per capita and 143 out of 177 for its Human Development Index (Madagascar’s Human Development Index 2004). So you would expect to see people begging (we do in London after all).

But, in Diego, begging only happens under rare circumstances.

In other parts of Madagascar begging is much more common, most noticeably from my travels in Tana and Tulear, though not as aggressive as in many other poor countries.  In Diego, when you hear the cry ‘Vazaha’ from children it’s normally just for their own amusement, in other places it almost always leads to a demand for money or presents.

Friday charity

Friday is giving day – a Muslim tradition. Thus the very poor, mainly the elderly, walk politely around town, especially the Indian and Arab shops pausing near people in the hope of some small change. They don’t pester and they always express thanks.

Because everyone is poor to a greater or lesser extent, people need some justification for receiving these alms. As I said, this is usually old age.

This system seems to work very well as you pass the rest of the week without expecting to give to anybody. Even on Fridays, it’s so polite and unobtrusive as to make giving a real pleasure. I know it should always be a pleasure to give but normally it gets all mixed up with trying to work out why that particular person is more deserving of money than the next person or you feel harassed. Not so here.

People look after each other

As said, everybody is familiar with poverty to some extent. Not having anything for the evening meal doesn’t make you very unusual here. So, you’d have to be really in dire straits to resort to begging. On top of this, if you did find yourself in crisis, people from your family or neighbourhood would take you home and feed you or get you through whatever crisis you were in.

And, because it’s a small town, you can’t fake your crisis. If you were attempting some kind of fraud it would be considered theft which is punished most severely.

There are a few known people whose begging is tolerated (but ‘managed’) and these are a small number of mentally ill people, harmless enough to themselves and others to be wandering around. I’ve noticed street vendors giving them food to eat as a matter of course so the community keeps them alive (and enjoys the entertainment their antics provide).

Other ways to get money

The lack of begging does not mean that hard graft is the only way to make money – far from it. Money is interlaced with every single interaction here and financial morality is much more fluid here than in the UK.

Life here is a series of negotiations in which everyone is a business person, taking their cut where they can. Sometimes this gets into territories that we would call ‘conning’ people – but it can be hard to draw a line between honest and deceitful business. I’m not a businesswoman in Europe, but I suspect that people with business in their blood understand this mentality more than I do.

Getting money out of Vazahas

Vazahas (white people) are always a target. Most Malagasys don’t have any understanding of the Vazaha way of life but they know we have money. And, although I’ve heard many younger travellers bemoaning that they don’t have much money, they really do compared to most people here.

At the beginning I tried to imagine every Vazaha walking around dripping with money and gold to help me understand the Gasy obsession with Vazahas and our money.

Charming money out of tourists is helped by the cheerful personalities, warm smiles and good looks of the locals.

Normal ways for trying to get money out of Vazahas includes:

  • sex
  • ‘love’
  • ‘friendship’
  • stories of hardship or desires to better themselves through a scheme (these may be true)
  • charging higher prices (this isn’t conning – nothing has a fixed price)
  • facilitating products or services (where you can cream a cut from the buyer and / or the service supplier)
  • buying and selling

These techniques are not reserved exclusively for Vazaha and are also used to a lesser extent on other Malagasys (apart from sex which is used an awful lot, but for different prices).

Why not beg from the rich?

Despite the other ways to get money, I still don’t understand why people don’t beg more from tourists, resident Vazahas or wealthy locals. The wealth gap is often enormous and, in the case of tourists, they are unlikely to know whether a case is genuine or not.

Long may it remain begging free

I am in awe of the people here for not begging when they are faced with such an immense wealth gap. As a resident Vazaha I can regularly be seen spending or wasting the equivalent of a week’s salary on some trivial fancy (this week it was a small packet of Fruit and Fibre cereal).

Maybe begging will become a norm in this region but I hope not, for the sake of the people who live here and for visitors. A major attraction of the region is the relative safety and relaxation that tourists can move around in. The worst thing that happens is usually fatigue from being over-‘charmed’.

It’s depressing, alienating and tiring being on the receiving end of begging, or very unreasonable conniving, however understandable it is.  Even in Diego, I get tired and frustrated just knowing that many people are wondering what they can extract from me with their ‘charm’.

However, being around people who, in the main, respectfully get on with their own lives, even in great poverty, fills my heart with warmth and admiration for local people. It can turn one-time tourists into repeat visitors and, more importantly, ambassadors for the county. How sad for everyone if that were to change.

Coconut oil, cradle cap and connectivity

My child no longer smells of olive oil which I was using to treat his cradle cap (and which my mother hated for making her lovely grandson smell dirty). Now he smells of coconut oil extracted by his Malagasy granny from coconut trees planted by his Papa.

So, now he smells like a tropical, Indian Ocean boy.

How to make coconut oil
Incidentally I have discovered how to make coconut oil. Coconut milk is heated for a long time until the oil and the cream separate and the oil is spooned off the top. For those coconut novices, coconut milk is not the liquid which comes out of a fresh coconut – that’s coconut juice and is a refreshing sweet drink. The milk comes from grating, soaking and squeezing the flesh of the coconut. Mmmm – just the thought of coconut sauce is making me hungry,

Quick aside that it was quite confusing deciding what terms to use for Fred’s family members there because Granny in Malagasy is Dady which is what we’re calling her.

To connect or not to connect….
When we talk about slow connection speeds in developing countries, people in the West may not realise just what we’re talking about. I had to wait around a minute just to switch between internet windows or to scroll up the screen. I was in there for 90 minutes and I sent 2 pre-written emails, updated my Facebook status and left 1 message on a friend’s Facebook wall.

This does not bode well for my internet related ambitions….

Stu (ex-Frontier staff who has been in Diego as long as me) has pointed out that it would make sense to get a phone line put in to the flat and get the internet. I think he is wise and have started investigations.

White woman breastfeeding in bar

Breastfed in public today and I’m still trying to interpret all the social signals to see how appropriate it was. I went into a bar (usually frequented by girlfriends looking for boyfriends and vice versa, and the odd tourist group attracted by the terrace).

I sat in front of the TV, facing only the two bar women. I also covered myself up so no bit of breast was ever on show. However, I was aware this was unusual if nothing else. A young man came and sat down next to me afterwards without smiling once. Was this a classic Malagasy indirect way of saying that I shouldn’t be doing that? Or did he just want to look at the motor racing? So hard to tell.

Jean gulped when I told him but wouldn’t tell me it was actually wrong – not good though I’m guessing.

Malagasy women can be seen breastfeeding fairly often. I think a key difference is that women here take their children with them on errands a lot less than we do in England. The children are always left with someone else. And if women do have to be out of the house for a long time, they are usually relatively poor and selling either fruit from the market or bits of food by the side of the road. The other place I’ve seen it is outside the hospital when women are waiting all day if someone is sick.

So, maybe me breastfeeding in public doesn’t fit with my status as a white woman with a nice apartment not far away. And, from experience I’ve learnt that life is easier in Madagascar if my behaviours fit with people’s expectations of my status.